During the last presidential election in the US, school children debated the issues, often with naive earnestness. One fifth grader said to me, “well, I don’t think past presidents kept their promises. Do you see a policeman on every corner?” I told her I didn’t recall anything of the sort, although I agreed that keeping campaign promises was important.
The next presidential election will be the central theme of many educational projects. Relying on paper voting booths and hand-cut campaign banners, children will aspire to imitate grown-up politics. Some will join the revelry of a mock convention and make wonderfully short-winded speeches. They will practice citizenship as if their futures depended on it. They will also be rewarded for good behavior in participatory politics. Apathy in this setting gets an “F,” not an “A.”
What happens between these years of imitation citizenry and real life? What can explain the average viewer’s preference for mindless television to the serious business of choosing a mayor, senator or president?
Something is amiss. If the average citizen’s dream is “freedom FROM politics” this will soon be a reality. The Center for the Study of the American Electorate reported that about 57% of eligible voters exercised their right to vote in the last presidential election. That leaves 43% who stayed away from the polls. If 5% were sick and another 1% was blown away by natural disasters, that still leaves a third of the eligible voting population in the “I don’t feel like voting” category. Compare this to elections in Thailand, South Africa and Indonesia — the so-called developing world — where more than 70% of voters show up at the polls; America looks like a government of the elite few who get to the polls.
It is particularly worrisome that less than half of eligible women voters participated in presidential elections. Not that women always vote for feminist causes. In most countries, there is no guarantee that women will support women’s rights. Raufa Hassan, a human rights activist, who ran against conservative religious leaders in Yemen got less that a third of women’s votes. She found out the hard way that there is a “feminist gap” dividing women voters as well as a “gender gap” between women and men.
Nevertheless, demographic trends favor increasing women’s influence in politics. In most industrialized countries, women voters now outnumber men. If women are well informed and willing to take the lead, they can make a major difference. For example, The League of Women Voters polls showed that in the 103rd Congress, women legislators voted for more “family-friendly” causes than did men. 91% of the women supported the ban on assault weapons, whereas only 66% of the men voted in favor of that measure.
But to make this all happen, something has to compel women, particularly young women, to jump into the voting pool. Maybe what is missing is the link between what happens in the classroom and what goes on at home. The homework –the practice of citizenship rights– needs more attention from parents. Perhaps we have relied too much on teachers to drive home the meaning of the democratic creed. After all, they can only give students a taste of how democracy should work. The lessons learned at school have to be reinforced at home.
Why not model a new campaign on the successful “take your daughter to work” program? Why not start a movement to “Take your daughter to vote?” Show children how names are registered, how votes are tallied and what mysteries lie behind the black curtain. For a son or a daughter, a childhood outing with a parent to vote could be the most important influence on his or her future political life. Then, classroom lessons would have meaning, not as an assignment, but as a family tradition that can be passed on to others.